The Roundtablers know what the Dickens they’re doing this week as they pay a ghostly visit to The Muppet Christmas Carol, the 1992 music-and-puppets version of the classic scary Morality tale, with screenplay by Jerry Juhl based on the story by Charles Dickens. Visit us on Twitter @StoryGridRT and let us know what you think of our analysis.
You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here.
Here’s a synopsis of the movie, adapted from Wikipedia.
It is Christmas Eve, and Charles Dickens (played by Gonzo the Great) and his friend Rizzo act as narrators to tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a surly money-lender played by Michael Caine, who does not share the merriment of Christmas with his fellow nineteenth century Londoners. Scrooge rejects his nephew Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner, dismisses two gentlemen collecting money for charity, and tosses a wreath at a carol-singing bunny named Bean.
His loyal employee Bob Cratchit and the other bookkeepers request to have Christmas Day off since there will be no business for Scrooge on the day. He reluctantly agrees, saying they should arrive all the earlier on the day after Christmas. Scrooge leaves for home while the bookkeepers celebrate Christmas.
Once at his home, Scrooge encounters the ghosts of his late business partners, Jacob and Robert Marley, who warn him to repent his wicked ways or he will be condemned in the afterlife like they have been. They inform him that three spirits will visit during the night.
At one o’clock, the childlike Ghost of Christmas Past appears, and she takes him back in time. Dickens and Rizzo hitch a ride too. They visit Scrooge’s lonely school days, and then his time as an employee under Fozziwig (Mr. Fezziwig from the original story, played by Fozzie Bear), who owned a rubber chicken factory. Fozziwig and his mother throw a Christmas party. Scrooge attends and meets a young woman named Belle, whom he falls in love with. However, the Ghost shows Scrooge how Belle left him when he chose money over her. A tearful Scrooge dismisses the Ghost as he returns to the present.
At two o’clock, Scrooge meets the gigantic, merry Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him the joys and wonder of Christmas Day. Scrooge and the Ghost visit Fred’s house, where the party’s attendants make fun of the money-lender. Scrooge and the spirit then visit Bob Cratchit’s house. They learn that Cratchit’s family is surprisingly content with their small dinner. Scrooge feels pity for Bob’s ill son, Tiny Tim. The Ghost of Christmas Present abruptly ages and comments that Tiny Tim likely won’t survive until next Christmas. Scrooge and the Ghost go to a cemetery, where the latter fades away, informing Scrooge that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come will arrive shortly.
A fog fills the cemetery, revealing the third Ghost, who appears as a tall, silent, cloaked figure. Dickens and Rizzo abandon the audience to avoid being frightened, and the Ghost takes Scrooge into the future.
Scrooge and the Ghost observe a group of businessmen discussing the death of an unnamed colleague. They laugh and say they would attend the funeral only if lunch is provided. In a den, Scrooge recognizes his charwoman, laundress, and the local undertaker trading several stolen possessions of the deceased to a fence named Old Joe.
The Ghost transports Scrooge to Bob’s house, where Scrooge learns that Tiny Tim has died. Scrooge is returned to the cemetery, where the Ghost points out his own grave. The penny drops, and Scrooge realizes that he is the man who had died. Scrooge decides to change his ways and asks for the opportunity to change.
Awakening in his bedroom on Christmas Day, Scrooge decides to surprise Bob’s family with a turkey dinner, and ventures out with Bean, Dickens, Rizzo, and the charity workers to spread happiness and joy around London. Scrooge goes to the Cratchit house, at first putting on a stern demeanor, but reveals he intends to raise Bob’s salary and pay off his mortgage. Dickens narrates how Scrooge became a second father to Tiny Tim, who escaped death. Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the neighborhood celebrate Christmas.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? Morality > Redemption
The Muppet Christmas Carol’s global genre is the internal genre: Morality > Redemption. The global value is Selfishness to Altruism. The full range of value is selfishness masked as altruism to selfishness to putting one person’s needs ahead of self to putting the tribe’s need ahead of self to self-sacrifice for all of humanity. In this story, Scrooge moves from selfishness to putting the tribe’s needs ahead of self.
The external genre is Horror > Supernatural. There are significant Society elements, but the main story is Scrooge’s Redemption, and the ghosts are the vehicle for that. Society is more of a subplot or setting that emphasizes the power divide between rich and poor. You could make a case that a revolution happens when Scrooge chooses to change and shares power (through wealth) with others in his city, but again this is a rich subplot rather than the main external genre.
This film is a musical, which is a Style genre (Check out “Genre’s Five Leaf Clover” here). Some of us liked the songs, some didn’t, and we thought it would be worthwhile to consider the purpose they serve in a story of this kind. The songs in some musicals proceed from the setting, for example, Cabaret and Moulin Rouge, where the characters are performers. Some have characters bursting into song out of the blue. Some use songs to develop the plot, some songs simply emphasize a mood or feeling. We think the purpose in this film is probably the last.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
A shock upsets the hibernating authentic self
The first shock is when the Ghost of Christmas Past comes, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future.
The first shock could be when one of the Marley brothers (his former business partners) appears on his door knocker.
The Protagonist expresses inner darkness with an overt refusal of the Hero’s Journey call to change
When Scrooge’s business partners visit to warn him to change his wicked ways, he refuses. (It’s so cool how they cast the balcony guys for this role. The heckling and song are awesome.)
Protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (positive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (negative)
When Scrooge wakes up, he decides to change his ways. He visits the Cratchit’s, pays their mortgage, and becomes a second father to Tiny Tim.
Protagonist faces literal or metaphorical death and either loses the battle but gains self-respect, meaning, and peace; or wins the battle but loses those things
Scrooge experiences a metaphorical death when the ghosts come since Scrooge is looking at his life as if he were dead. This omnipresent effect is how he sees the errors in his ways.
The Big Event
Scrooge, after changing his ways, spreads Christmas joy with a big musical number.
Michael Caine as Scrooge is well acted. Love that guy! I did not know that he could sing!
Self-obsessed protagonist at the outset
Scrooge’s heart is black (this is all shown in one scene). He has put commerce above all emotion, which is outlined very clearly in the song “Scrooge”: “everyday in every way, Scrooge is getting worse.” Specific examples include:
- Tosses Mr. Applegate (behind in rent because his daughter is sick) out of his office
- Plans Christmas Day eviction notices (December is harvest time for the money lenders)
- Refuses an extra shovelful of coal for the bookkeepers (great line: our assets are frozen)
- Rebukes nephew Fred’s Merry Christmas wishes and criticizes the fact that he got married (humbug)
- Refuses to donate to the Order of Victoria Charity Foundation (and says of the poor: “If they’d rather die [than go to prisons or poor houses] then they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population”)
- Even refuses to help a poor little bunny!
Spiritual Guide / Sidekick
In this version of the story, Scrooge actually has five spiritual guides (over the four guides in Dickens’s version). Here we have Jacob and Robert Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.
Seemingly impossible external conflict
In this story it is definitely impossible! There are no real ghosts—past, present or future—and a character cannot literally travel back and forth in time.
Ghosts from protagonist’s past torment him
The irony in this convention is that, although there are ghosts as guides, Scrooge has his own metaphorical ghosts as well, including being lonely as a child in the boarding house and losing the love of his life, Belle.
Aid from unexpected sources
The ghosts help him by showing him the folly of his ways, but the true unexpected source of help is Tiny Tim. Faced with personal illness, poverty, and (essentially) a death sentence, Tim remains grateful and kind. The Marleys have evicted children from an orphanage, but Scrooge still has a touch of kindness, and Tim is the one to reach him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Scrooge also hears (1) Fred and his wife, Clara, making Scrooge the butt of a joke and (2) commoners rejoicing (and profiting) from the news of his death. Unless he changes his ways, Scrooge will not be mourned.
Anne: I also see an impossible conflict in the disparity between Scrooge’s wealth and the intense, Victorian-London poverty all around him. Even when he’s reformed and can make some efforts to alleviate the suffering of those in his immediate orbit, he can never really solve poverty. If he were to give away every penny, the problem would remain.
3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?
Third person omniscient narrator: Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat as his sidekick, breaks the fourth wall by telling the story directly to the audience. They fill us in on expository facts, offer commentary between scenes, and show us scenes where Scrooge doesn’t appear.
There’s a funny moment when Rizzo asks Gonzo, “How do you know what Scrooge is doing up there?” Gonzo replies, “Because narrator’s are omniscient.” In this way, the filmmakers include jokes for mature members of the audience.
When we meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (who looks like the Grim Reaper), Gonzo and Rizzo abandon us and say, “You’re on your own folks, see you at the finale.”
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Scrooge wants to be rid of the ghosts: to hide from the past, ignore the present and future, and pretend that his selfish ways have no consequences.
Needs: Scrooge needs to face the truth of his past, present, and future and be changed by them for good so he won’t suffer the same doomed fate as the Marleys.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
The standard Controlling Idea/Theme for the Morality Genre is “Good triumphs when the Protagonist sacrifices worldly, selfish values in favor of the needs of others.”
We can make this more specific:
Goodness triumphs (or redemption occurs) when tyrants embrace change and choose to live generously, sharing wealth and power with those around them.
Specific scene where the theme is expressed: Jacob and Robert Marley warn Scrooge by singing, “Freedom comes from giving love, prison comes with hate,” and at the end of their song they yell, “Change!”
What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Beginning Hook: Christmas Eve arrives, and Ebenezer Scrooge is interrupted by his nephew, people collecting charitable donations, and a caroler, but when the end of the work day comes and Bob Cratchit and the rest of the staff request time off for the holiday, and he must decide if he will give them the day off or not. He agrees, but tells them they must come to work early on December 26. Scrooge goes home to spend Christmas alone.
- Inciting Incident: Christmas Eve arrives.
- Progressive Complication and Turning Point: After a series of interruptions, the end of the work day arrives, and Cratchit and the rest of the staff request time off for Christmas.
- Crisis Question: Scrooge must decide whether to give them the day off.
- Climax: Scrooge gives them the day off, but tells them they must be at work early the following day.
- Resolution: Scrooge goes home to spend Christmas alone.
Middle Build: Scrooge arrives home and sees the face of one of the Marley brothers (his former business partners) on the door knocker, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him a painful memory of Belle, his fiancé, ending their relationship, but when visiting the Cratchit home and his words about decreasing the surplus population are repeated to him in reference to Tiny Tim, Scrooge must decide whether to hang on to his selfish ways or change and consider the welfare of others. He tells the Ghost of Christmas Present that he has changed and asks. The Ghost tells him that he has one more visitor.
- Inciting Incident: One of the Marley brothers appears on Scrooge’s door knocker.
- Progressive Complication and Turning Point: The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge memories, including one in which his fiancé leaves him, and then the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him that Tiny Tim is sick and repeats Scrooge’s own words to him about decreasing the surplus population.
- Crisis Question: Scrooge must decide whether to continue being selfish or learn to consider others.
- Climax: Scrooge tells the ghost, “You’ve changed me.”
- Resolution: The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge he still must meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Ending Payoff: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to see people talking badly about a man he assumes is like himself and takes him to Bob Cratchit’s home where he learns that Tiny Tim has died, but when the specter shows him his own grave, Scrooge must decide whether to ask for the opportunity to change or not. He asks and wakes on Christmas morning then goes about redeeming himself for his selfish behavior. Scrooge becomes a good man, and Tiny Tim lives.
- Inciting Incident: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him people talking unkindly about someone he assumes is like himself.
- Progressive Complication and Turning Point: They visit Cratchit’s house and learn that Tiny Tim is dead. Then they go to the grave that will be Scrooge’s.
- Crisis Question: Will Scrooge ask for an opportunity to change, or not?
- Climax: Scrooge begs to be given another chance. Next morning, he buys a turkey, gives to charity, and spends Christmas visiting his nephew and Cratchit.
- Resolution: Scrooge becomes a good man, and Tiny Tim lives.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
Kim: In this version of the story, I enjoy the omniscient narrator’s use of humor and calling attention to themselves. The third person omniscient narrator is certainly less common in today’s stories, but when done well can add a lot to the story. A modern story that comes to mind is The Book Thief, where Death is the narrator.
Valerie: This version of the story is a great example of how changing choices from the Genre Clover leaves can work to innovate a story! The creators of this film chose to present it as a musical and comedy, rather than a literary drama, and it is a completely different experience.
Leslie: Interesting that Charles Dickens chose a ghost story. Being a lonely and frustrated old man (similar to Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), eternal damnation was the only threat serious enough to move him. Also, I was aware of feeling empathy for Scrooge this time. I don’t remember noticing this in the past when I’ve watched and read it. Watching this again reminded me how other versions show that Scrooge didn’t end up this way for no reason.